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Evolution Education Trust PhD project: Altruistic fungal-insect zombies - the evolution of the Septobasidium symbiosis

Department of Biology & Biochemistry

Dr Daniel Henk Sunday, February 28, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
Bath United Kingdom Behavioural Biology Biodiversity Bioinformatics Ecology Environmental Biology Environmental Geography Evolution Genomics Mathematical Modelling Microbiology

About the Project

The University of Bath's Milner Centre for Evolution is inviting applications for this PhD opportunity commencing in October 2021. 

Funding is available to candidates who qualify for ‘Home’ fee status only. Candidates from the EU/EEA are advised to check their eligibility before applying. Please see the Funding Eligibility section below.

When is being a zombie also for the greater good? Perhaps when it’s part of the fungal-insect symbiosis, Septobasidium.

Fungi are well-known for making ants into ‘zombies’ in an evolutionary battle between host and parasite, but in the Septobasidium symbiosis, colonies of scale insects may actually benefit from fungal infection.

Across the Mediterranean, the fungus Septobasidium is commonly found appearing rather like a brown lichen on living branches of mastic trees. Embedded in the lichen-like fungal mat are infected and uninfected scale insects feeding on the host plant. Individual infected insects are often alive, and the fungus completely relies on them for nutrition. The bodies of infected insects are dominated by the fungus, and they cannot reproduce. However, uninfected insects also covered by the fungus can reproduce, and they potentially gain benefits because the fungal mat protects them from desiccation and predators. Because benefits for insects should change depending on fungal traits and the local environment (e.g. humidity), then under some circumstances evolution could drive some insects to choose to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the colony and the fungus.

This PhD will investigate how individual costs and collective benefits for both the insects and the fungi in this system can drive evolution on a local scale and over longer time intervals leading to diversificaiton. Comparative genomics, field data, and co-phylogeography across multiple scales within Mediterranean islands will be used to trace the evolutionary history of the symbiosis and determine how benefits and relatedness support or undermine the symbiosis.

Candidate Requirements:

We require a First Class or good Upper Second Class Honours degree (or the equivalent). A master’s level qualification would also be advantageous.

Non-UK applicants must meet our English language entry requirement.

Enquiries and Applications:

Candidates are encouraged to discuss the project directly with the lead supervisor, Dr Daniel Henk (), before applying.

Formal applications should be made via the University of Bath’s online application form.

On the application form, quote ‘Evolution Education Trust’ in the Finance section and the supervisor’s name and project title in the ‘Your research interests’ section.  If applying for more than one project, quote the projects in order of preference and upload a separate personal statement relevant to each one.

Your application must be complete when you submit it to us. Incomplete applications cannot be considered. Please ensure you have completed all fields on the application form and supplied the contact details of TWO referees willing to provide us with a reference when requested (one must be from your most recent place of study). Also, you should ensure that you have uploaded all the required documents. See our website for more information.

Interviews will take place on Monday 19 April 2021.

Funding Eligibility:

To be considered for a studentship, you must qualify as a ‘Home’ student. In determining ‘Home’ student status, we follow the UK government’s fee regulations which, when available, will be explained on the UKCISA website. Although the fee regulations for 2021/22 have not yet been published, but we expect (subject to confirmation) the main categories of students generally eligible for ‘Home’ fee status will be:

  • UK nationals (who have lived in the UK, EU, EEA or Switzerland continuously since September 2018)
  • Irish nationals (who have lived in the UK or Ireland continuously since September 2018)
  • EU/EEA applicants with settled status in the UK under the EU Settlement Scheme (who have lived in the UK continuously since September 2018)
  • EU/EEA applicants with pre-settled status in the UK under the EU Settlement Scheme (who have lived in the UK, EU, EEA, Switzerland or Gibraltar continuously since September 2018)
  • Applicants with indefinite leave to enter/remain in the UK (who have been resident in the UK continuously since September 2018)

EU/EEA citizens who live outside the UK are unlikely to be eligible for ‘Home’ fees and funding.

Additional information may be found on our fee status guidance webpage and on the GOV.UK website.

Funding Notes

Candidates applying for this project will be considered for a 3.5-year Evolution Education Trust Studentship which will cover tuition fees at the ‘Home’ rate, a tax-free maintenance allowance at the UKRI Doctoral Stipend rate (£15,285 for 2020/21) and a generous budget for research, training and outreach expenses. Important: In order to be eligible for funding, applicants must qualify as a ‘Home’ student - see Funding Eligibility section above.
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